Photo Credit: From people power to equipment sharing, there are several models to increase prescribed fire capacity surfacing in northern California. Photo by Michelle Halbur, Pepperwood Preserve
The more I’ve learned about fire, the more I’ve grown concerned about the lack of prescribed fire. Most of my go-to spots for recreation are densely vegetated with invasive grasses, French broom and eucalyptus stands that appear, at least to me, to be craving fire. And I have the feeling that they wouldn’t distinguish between wildfire and prescribed fire; they are just ready to burn. That’s why when I attended last month’s Northern California Prescribed Fire Council’s annual meeting, I was delighted to learn about all of the collaboration that is in the works to bring more good fire back to the Bay Area.
Many of you may be aware of the prescribed fire training exchanges (TREXs) that the Fire Learning Network hosts every year across the country. These are site-based training opportunities, during which participants from across the country, and sometimes globe, receive prescribed fire training experience while getting work (e.g., burning) done on the ground. One of the first things that I learned at last month’s meeting was that in California, TREX has become so in demand that 2017 will be the start of a new TREX offshoot — CalTREX. CalTREX will be sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service and CAL FIRE. It will allow for more TREX-style events, and therefore more cooperative prescribed fire training, to occur in California. Although we won’t see acreage burned from CalTREX until this fall, CalTREX will provide more training opportunities and allow for the implementation of controlled burns in areas that otherwise would remain unburned … or at least unburned by good fire.
Choosing Partners People Trust
Another group working with CAL FIRE is the Pepperwood Preserve, located in a historic ranching region of the North Bay — Sonoma County. In the preserve’s 2016 prescribed burn, CAL FIRE was an integral part of their effort, from outreach to implementation. Although Pepperwood is primarily designed as a scientific preserve and the main objective of their burn was to eradicate an invasive, highly flammable grass (medusahead), they have no shortage of residents in Sonoma County that needed more than a promise of weed control to get on board with the project. By having a trusted fire agency (CAL FIRE) present at public meetings, including fact sheets in their outreach letters, emphasizing fire resilience as a desired outcome and actively listening to the nearby residents’ concerns, the public’s reaction shifted from reservations about the project to requests that they burn more even acres!
Prescribed Burn Associations
Another concept for collaboration presented at the meeting was Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs). PBAs are similar to prescribed fire councils, in that they are groups of parties interested in prescribed burning. However, prescribed fire councils typically work at a regional or statewide level and focus on peer learning, policy, training and advocacy, whereas PBAs focus on local-level implementation. PBAs typically involve landowners and other partners sharing resources, equipment and energy to burn on each other’s properties. PBAs aren’t a new idea; there are 63 known PBAs in the country, but they are currently most common in the Southeast and the Mid-West. Hopefully we will see some of these in California soon, as it could be an effective tool to increase controlled burning in the region.
Taking the “U” in WUI to the Next Level
The concept of increased operational capacity via CalTREX and/or a PBA dovetailed perfectly with the focus of day two of the meeting: Point Reyes National Seashore (PORE). Over the years, PORE has accomplished a modest amount of broadcast burning, about 100-150 acres per year.
The challenges to burning in PORE are multi-faceted. First, like many National Park Service units, they’ve experienced a significant decrease in organizational capacity in the past several years. Second, although they are operating within a National Seashore, they are surrounded by private residents. Third, both summer and winter are often too wet for their fine fuels to ignite, as winter is dominated by frequent rain and then summer is typically foggy. Last, given PORE’s location on the north coast of California, its winds are notoriously high. As in last time I was in PORE, I actually got wind-burned.
Most FAC practitioners operate within the context of a wildland-urban interface, but to give you some perspective regarding just how “urban” this WUI is, the Bay Area spans about 7,000 square miles and houses over seven million people. In the most populated area (San Francisco), the population density is more than 17,000 people per square mile. Not only is PORE surrounded by a large and dense population, but there are urban areas in almost every direction that the wind could blow. Greg Jones, our host from PORE, explained that in some areas of the country, burn plans just need to avoid burning on days when the smoke may blow in one or two directions. However, in PORE, there is only one good direction for the smoke to go: west, to the Pacific Ocean. Still, even once the smoke is over the ocean, a strong enough shift in winds can carry the smoke back into a community or urban area.
Despite all these challenges, PORE has a rather remarkable relationship with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. So much so that at times, the district actually calls PORE to suggest burn windows. Greg explained that this relationship is a product of a few key strategies. First, he begins a dialogue with them about burn projects months in advance. That way, there is plenty of time to align everyone’s thinking and generate creative solutions. Second, come burn day, there is a standing invitation for the district to join Greg and his crew in the field. Greg explained that having forecasters on the ground as soon as ignition occurs increases the district’s level of comfort with that particular burn, and hopefully its comfort with prescribed burning in general.
Given their decreased staffing, it may come as a surprise that PORE is actually the only agency burning in Marin County. A big reason why is that the list of supporting agencies that help with PORE’s burning program is vast. Partners include East Bay Regional Parks, other National Park units, and local open space, water and fire districts.
It’s Like Being Asked to be in a Wedding
During the first morning of the meeting, Lenya Quinn-Davidson pointed out that although ranchers haven’t been actively participating in the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, they have been burning their lands for generations. She and others are therefore working on outreach to these stakeholders, who they see as key leaders in private lands stewardship, and potential partners in prescribed fire projects.
Her colleague Jeff Stackhouse, the University of California Cooperative Extension’s livestock and natural resources advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties, also spoke about integrating the ranching community into the council. He offered a powerful metaphor about branding culture, which could translate directly to prescribed fire culture. Every year, ranchers brand their new livestock, something I knew. What I didn’t know is what a social event a branding is. Jeff compared the invitation to participate in a branding to the invitation to be in someone’s wedding. You always accept; you go; you work harder than you imagined, and you have a great time. Except with branding, your friends can ask you to do it every year. Sounds sort of like an ideal PBA, right? He suggested that if the prescribed fire efforts could get buy-in from a culture that’s been living by the “all-hands” concept for generations, burners could cover some serious ground.
The Northern California Prescribed Burn Council has a relatively long history, with seven years in the making. Many of the meeting’s participants have been burning — be it on private or public land — and most likely will continue to do so. What I think may change the most after this particular meeting is an increase in collaborative implementation. From Cal TREX to PBAs to the informal relationships among agencies and ranchers alike, the opportunities for collaboration around prescribed fire appear to be one thing: ripe. Or should I say “fire ready”? (In a good way, of course).
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